Bringing together whisky and good friends

The spiritual home of Three Ships and Bain’s Whisky celebrates 125 years

Wispy white clouds drifting across an azure sky greeted us as we arrived in Cape Town a few days ago. Marc (WhiskyBrother) and I had been invited down to attend the 125th anniversary celebrations of the James Sedgwick Distillery, home of my beloved Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.

Arriving at the James Sedgwick Distillery

A short commute later, we arrived at the distillery’s entrance. A thrill of excitement ran through me as I took in the distillery from the road, with its iconic pagoda-shaped still house roof (which was put in place on the 17th of June 1997, the day the British Lions played South Africa in Wellington – the Lions won 51 – 22), and the dam in the foreground, complete with its water-borne birdlife.

Andy Watts, the James Sedgwick Distillery’s manager and master distiller was on hand to greet us as we disembarked. It was quite a surreal moment for me – who would have thought a few months back that I would not only be at the very source of my beloved whisky, but shaking the hand of it’s creator.

The beautifully renovated Old Maturation Store

The venue for the day’s celebrations was the old maturation store which was renovated during 2010 and opened with the launch of the Three Ships 10 year old Single Malt in October 2010. What a wonderful building, oozing genus loci (spirit of place) thanks to the rows of casks stacked to the ceiling at the rear, the innovative use of a salvaged copper pot still (now a fireplace) and tasteful decor – including a glass cabinet proudly displaying the whiskies produced on site, and displays on the walls detailing the history of whisky and the different production techniques for malt and grain whiskies.

As I took in the building, Andy told us about how there were two tiers in the old maturation store, hence the reason for the large openings half way up the walls: that was where the barrels were rolled in. He also pointed out how over the years, the large doorways on the ground had been scuffed away as the barrels were rolled out of the store once maturation was complete. Very early into my visit I picked up on how important the history of the distillery was not only to Andy, but Distell themselves. This was reinforced when I met Oom Hannes Louw, who served as distillery manager for 24 years prior to Andy taking over.

Distillery managers, present and past

With Three Ships Bourbon Cask cocktail in hand, it was time to mingle with the other guests. It was here that I finally got to put faces to the names of the whisky folk I have been interacting with on the web, or read about in local publications. Shayne Dowling, Marsh Middleton and Fiona MacDonald from Whisky Mag SA, Bernard Gutman (Premium Spirits blog), Paul laCock (Aficionados), Mark Burridge (The Whisky Club), the legendary Dave Hughes, Jonathan Miles (Whisky Academy) and many more. What a great bunch of people. It was a real privilege to be able to interact with these passionate whisky lovers, and learn more about whisky.

Andy Watts welcomes the guests

After taking our seats in anticipation of the celebratory meal, Andy welcomed all the guests to the celebration. Not only were we celebrating the James Sedgwick Distillery’s 125 years, but Andy’s 20 years as distillery manager. It is interesting to note that there have only been six managers in the distillery’s 125 year history (including Andy) – an impressive feat! Andy shared some more history of the distillery, and made special mention of Piet Groenewald, an employee of the distillery for 40 years, retiring in 2010. Piet was a man that answered the call at all hours come rain or shine and simply got things done. In honour of his long service, the two new copper pot stills at the distillery are named “Oom Piet se Pot” (translated: Uncle Piet’s Pots) – a touching tribute, and yet another thing that reinforces for me the heritage and history to be found at the South African distillery.

Three Ships 10 year-old single malt, limited edition, 2nd release

The day also served as the launch of the second of a series of three commemorative editions of its 10 year-old single malt whisky celebrating the pioneering spirit of explorers in days gone by. The series kicked off last year, commemorating the journey of Bartholomew Diaz. This year it was the turn of Vasco da Gama, the first European navigator to reach India.

After a tasty starter, paired with the Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky (South Africa’s first single grain whisky), Johan Venter – Distell’s Primary Production Director – presented us with a brief history lesson of the man the distillery takes its name from: Captain James Sedgwick. For a full transcript of his speech, which also touched upon the history of whisky production in South Africa, click here.

Glorious Three Ships whisky

Then it was time for the main course, hand-picked by Andy. A delicious, melt in your mouth, beef fillet with a delectable blue cheese sauce accompanied by some superb roasted baby vegetables and potatoes. The Three Ships 5 year old Premium Select, Andy’s favourite, proved to be the perfect whisky match for the meal. The sweet, smoky peat taste of the ISC 2010 Gold awarded whisky worked beautifully with the blue cheese sauce. In fact, I reckon that is dram with any cheese would be a real winning combination.

As the end of the day’s proceedings were drawing closer, we were invited on a quick tour of the distillery itself. “Dessert be damned!” I thought to myself, this is something I was definitely not going to miss out on. A 3000km roundtrip to a distillery and not see the inner workings? You must be crazy.

The still house at James Sedgwick distillery

Our first stop was the still house, standing tall and proud. I must admit, I didn’t catch much of what was said inside as I was too busy taking photos. I did hear that malt is only distilled for two months of the year, namely July and August – the Cape’s winter months. The two new copper pot stills used to distil the malt (which replaced 10 smaller pots) were part of the massive upgrade project that took place between March 2009 and June 2010. The pot stills were manufactured by Forsyth’s of Scotland with the design being based on the pot stills at the Bowmore distillery on Islay, Scotland where Andy spent time learning about whisky.

Fermentation tanks stretch to the ceiling

The continuous stills along with the fermentation tanks were part of the upgrade project and the gleaming metal is a testament to the “newness” of it all. All this new equipment is managed by a world class, state-of-the-art control system which Andy can even access from his phone if the need arises. Gone are the old days of manually adjusting flow rates and regulating temperatures. In recognition of this innovation and Distell’s investment project, the international Whisky Magazine named the distillery as it’s 2011 Whisky Brand Innovator of the Year in their Icons of Whisky awards earlier this year.

Casks maturing in the maturation store

After viewing the fermentation tanks, it was time for my favourite part – a peek at the maturation store. Rows upon rows upon rows of casks, some empty, most full, patiently sitting there. The wood imparting its flavours as time passes. I think I could have spent hours in there, just sitting with the whisky, marking time. But all good things come to an end, and it was time to head back for dessert.

I'm not greedy. I just want the casks you can see in the photo

The creamy toffee dessert with peppermint ice-cream and a dram of the Three Ships 10 Year Old whisky helped pull me back into the present, and then all too soon, the festivities were over and it was time to say goodbye and head back to Johannesburg. I hope to return again someday and spend more time at the distillery. The good news for all Three Ships and Bain’s whisky lovers is that they are planning on opening a visitor centre sometime in the future, so we will all be able to visit this wonderful place someday.

A photo with Andy Watts to remind me of my visit to the home of Three Ships and Bain's whisky

I would like to thank all at Distell and De Kock Communications for the opportunity to be present for the celebrations, it was truly an honour. Special thanks go out to Liezl Dippenaar (Distell), Linda Christensen (DKC) and, of course, Andy Watts for giving me a day that will live on in my memory for ages to come.

10 Comments

  1. October 17, 2011    

    Great article and a great day indeed. Even if you weren’t concentrating on taking photos during the visit to the stillhouse you wouldn’t have heard much about the distillation process – the racket from the column stills drowned out most of what our guide Jeff had to say.

    Paul

  2. October 17, 2011    

    Other interesting points I took from the visit:

    – The release of the third edition of the current 10 yr old series is scheduled for next year.
    – After that, there’s likely to be a gap of a couple of years before any more 10yr old becomes available.
    – There was a hint of something interesting in the pipeline for the Bain’s range somewhere around 2013 – perhaps an aged version?

    • Mark Mark
      October 19, 2011    

      Thanks for the extra notes Paul. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what’s in store in the near future. New expressions of either Three Ships or Bain’s would be most welcome!

  3. October 18, 2011    

    Great article Mark. It captures the essence of the day. It was a priviledge to be there and savour the quality of the whiskies they produce at the distillery. They stand proud and definitely match the best in the world. Well done.

    • Mark Mark
      October 19, 2011    

      Thank you for dropping by Jonathan. See you at the FNB Whisky Live Festival next month.

  4. October 18, 2011    

    Very nice write-up Mark. It was great to finally meet in person, and at such an auspicious event too! The 2 hour flight back felt like just a few minutes with all the whisky talk we had. Look forward to sharing more drams in the future.

    • Mark Mark
      October 19, 2011    

      Thanks for the kind words Marc. I agree with you – the flight passed so quickly. Thanks for imparting some of your bountiful knowledge of whiskies with me!

  5. Donovan de Kock Donovan de Kock
    October 20, 2011    

    Wow – i had the pleasure of working on the distilery upgrade project (Logichem) – to this day i swear it was the best project i have ever worked on and Andy was my favourite client – the Place looks amazing and i will be visiting in November when i am back in south africa for a week –
    I hope there are a few bottles of that 10 year old single malt still left for sale !!

    Well done and congratulations – heres to the next 125 years 🙂

    excellent article – very well written !
    Don

    • Mark Mark
      October 20, 2011    

      Hi Donovan, the fermentation tanks look fantastic – like they unwrapped them just yesterday. You guys did great work. I’m sure you’ll be able to get a bottle or two with no problem. Thank you for contributing to the blog.

  6. Bernard Gutman Bernard Gutman
    October 20, 2011    

    Great read. I like the “Whisky Tasting Fellowship” and will continue this at the festival in November.

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